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Chris Wylie and Janet Heasman Receive 2014 SDB-Developmental Biology Lifetime Achievement Award

By Marsha E. Lucas

The 2014 Developmental Biology-Society for Developmental Biology Lifetime Achievement Award was given jointly to Janet Heasman and Chris Wylie for their outstanding and sustained research and mentoring contributions to the field of developmental biology. Together, Wylie and Heasman—now retired from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Research Foundation—made seminal discoveries in axis formation, primary germ layer formation, and germ cell development. They showed β-catenin/Wnt signaling controls the formation of the dorsal axis in vertebrate embryos; identified VegT as an essential transcription factor in the formation of mesendoderm; and identified the mitochondrial cloud as the source of the germ plasm in Xenopus oocytes. The pair made a lasting impact on the Xenopus research community with their development of the oocyte transfer method which made knocking down maternally provided gene products possible and then went on to pioneer the use of morpholino oligonucleotides for studying zygotic genes.

Wylie began medical school at the University College Hospital Medical School in 1963. While there, he did an intercalated Bachelor’s degree in Anatomy at University College London (UCL) in 1966. He went on to earn his doctorate at UCL in 1971 in the lab of Ruth Bellairs where he studied RNA in the early chick embryo. Wylie never finished his medical degree thanks to an offer of a lecturer position at UCL from the chair of the anatomy department, J.Z. Young. In an interview with Peter Donovan for the International Journal of Developmental Biology, Wylie called Young an “inspirational teacher and scientist.”

In 1971, Heasman began medical school at the University College Hospital Medical School. Like Wylie, she made her way to the UCL Anatomy Department where she earned her Bachelor’s in 1974. After a year abroad conducting research with Wylie at Dartmouth College in the United States, Heasman left medical school to complete her PhD on primordial germ cells at St. George’s Hospital Medical College where Wylie had taken a Senior Lecturer position. In 1979, Heasman finished her degree and joined the faculty as a Lecturer at St. George’s.

Wylie and Heasman moved their joint lab to the University of Cambridge in 1988 where they were one of the founding labs of what would become the Gurdon Institute. In 1994, they moved to the University of Minnesota where Wylie established the Developmental Biology Center and then again in 2000, to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. These later appointments allowed Wylie to initiate joint basic and clinical research studies.

Together Wylie and Heasman trained more than 50 students and postdocs throughout their careers while raising four children. Their fostering of the next generation of scientists did not end there as they taught for many years at the Marine Biological Laboratory Embryology course and the Cold Spring Harbor Xenopus course which they co-directed from 2005 to 2008.

Wylie was integral in transforming the Journal of Embryology and Experimental Morphology into Development in the late 1980’s. As its founder and editor-in-chief for sixteen years, he made Development the modern journal it is today.

SDB President (2014-2015), Lee Niswander with Heasman and Wylie following SDB Awards Lectures.

At the SDB Awards Lecture, Wylie noted four key individuals who were critical in his development as a scientist. Bill Freeman, his high school rugby coach and zoology teacher, encouraged him to consider medical school. This was not on Wylie’s radar as soccer and rugby were his focus. Freeman fostered his interest in biology and nudged him toward medicine. J.Z. Young, the chair of the anatomy department was an advocate for basic science and his mentoring led Wylie toward research and a Ph.D. Ruth Bellairs, his graduate advisor, was an excellent mentor who worked at the bench along side her students. Wylie modeled this behavior in his own lab. Finally, Wylie acknowledged Janet Heasman whom he met in 1973 and was critical to his success as a scientist.

In her speech at the Awards Lecture, Heasman said she loved doing science and teaching. She particularly enjoyed the evolution of technology over her long scientific career. Heasman expressed appreciation for the humans and non-humans that helped make her career a success. First, she thanked the mighty Xenopus. The frog embryo provided a beautiful tool through which she made fundamental discoveries about basic developmental processes. Second, she thanked “all the people who made her research life such a great ride—her colleagues, post docs, grad students. . . and the unsung people—secretaries, cleaning ladies, folks at the grant awarding bodies, etc.” Finally, Heasman thanked her family who provided a great respite for the great and not-so-great-days in the lab.